Sunday, September 23, 2007

And Now a Taste of Something Whigish

A friend of mine, who works as an archivist and has an interest in the history of science, sent this to me before Yom Kippur. It is from the introduction to a book published in 1883 titled: Zoological sketches: a contribution to the outdoor study of natural history. The name of the author was Felix Leopold Oswald

"The tendencies of our realistic civilization make it evident that the study of natural science is destined to supersede the mystic scholasticism of the Middle Ages, and I believe that the standards of entertaining literature will undergo a corresponding change. The Spirit of Naturalism has awakened after its long slumber..."
"...Whatever is natural is wrong, was the keystonedogma of the mediaeval schoolmen...The worship of joy yielded to a worship of sorrow, the study of living nature to the study of dead languages and barrensophisms...The moralists that had suppressed the Olympic festivals compensated the public with autos-da-fe. The whole history of the Middle Ages is, indeed, the history of a long war against nature.
[Note that he doesn't blame religion or even Catholicism but the scholastics for everything wrong in Western thought! Safer in England and America to do that]
"But nature has at last prevailed. Delusions are clouds, and the storm of the Thirty Years' War has cleared our sky...Ghost-stories are going out of fashion...And, moreover, the progress of natural science tends to supersede fiction by making it superfluous-even for romantic purposes."

What I find interesting about this piece, besides for its total distortion of the Middle Ages, is its assumption that modern civilization would have no need for fantasy. As we know so well, stories about boy wizards do not sell over 300 million copies in our modern civilization. This does raise an interesting question though as to what is the relationship between the writing of fantasy fiction and belief in the supernatural? It would seem to be reasonable to classify fantasy as a genre for religious people and science fiction as a genre for secularists. Religious people, who put their hopes in a supernatural world, should find it very easy to suspend their disbelief when confronted with fantasy supernatural. Secularists, who place their hopes in science should be open to suspending their disbelief at the scientific fantasies of science fiction. Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia were written by Tolkien and Lewis, who were both deeply religious individuals. On the other hand science fiction was pioneered by the likes of H.G Wells, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, all quite hostile to organized religion. The only problem with this theory is that it does not pan out in reality. Orson Scott Card is one of the greatest science fiction writers today and he is a Mormon. Not only that but his science fiction has very explicit religious overtones. One of the greatest fantasy writers today, Philip Pullman, is militant atheist. His Dark Materials, besides for turning Paradise Lost on its head, is an atheist allegory written to open children up to the idea of overthrowing God and all those who claim to speak in his name. (Its a brilliant series of book, so please do not let any religious qualms you may have get in the way of reading it.) Furthermore, as we saw with Harry Potter, fantasy, even when it is not explicitly hostile to religion, can still raise its ire.
I happen to be a fan of both science fiction and fantasy. I believe that these forms of fiction have an important role to play in society in that they force us to think outside of the normal box of our reality. They tyranny of everyday expectations and of the society around us is one of the hardest things to fight against. It is only by being able to break outside of the box of what our own preconceptions of reality that we can truly become free thinkers.

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